Quartermaster Brown and Lieutenant Davis were talking quietly but intensely. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I didn’t need to, because they weren’t talking to me. It was very clear by body language that the lieutenant wanted something and the quartermaster didn’t want to do what the lieutenant wanted. They stopped talking, and both turned and walked quickly towards the officer’s tent. It was obvious that Captain Marko spent a substantial amount of time and effort mediating between the officers below him on the chain of command.
One of the quartermaster’s helpers, someone I didn’t recognize, handed me a stone axe. The unknown person had probably been the mahout or the roadway worker for Happy, the New Charleston elefant who pulled the wagon the axes were coming out of. Happy herself was tied to a tree nearby with a long rope leash, and was methodically stripping the ground and trees around her of vegetation at a rapid rate. The other two elefants, Teak and Granite, were also enthusiastically doing their best to eat everything within twenty feet of the tree their leashes were tied to. I probably should have tried to learn the names of the new mahouts and road workers, but I hadn’t heard them say their own names. I had heard them call out the names of the elefants quite a few times though, as we set up camp.
Before walking away, I checked the leather straps holding the axe head in the carved hollow at the end of the club-like handle. The leather was tight, and not dry rotted. I could see the sheen of oil on the straps. I could also smell the hickory. Bull-oak was better for tools, but it was slow to grow, and relatively expensive. For large striking tools like mallets, hatchets, and axes, hickory was the best solution for the cost. A bull-oak axe handle would be four of five times the cost as a hickory handle, but only last about twice as long.
I frowned with irritation as I fingered the edge of the stone blade while walking away, but said nothing. We didn’t have a blade grinder set up, and finding a good long flat stone and grinding the edge by hand would take almost as long as cutting a few saplings with a slightly rounded edge.
I was supposed to find six ash saplings that were mostly straight for at least three meters. We would be sharpening and fire hardening four of them tonight. Two would be left blunt for practice. I needed to hurry though. The sun was starting to get close to the horizon and I didn’t know this area well.
I did know the area to some extent, but I hadn’t been this far north in years. We’d come this way to buy a draft horse when Samson had died, not scout the woods.
Today we’d travelled about seven hours from town, going past my family’s farm, and then two hours farther up the road. Almost every family along the road had come out to see us pass, waving to relatives. Quite a few of us who lived on the north road were given a bit of bread, cheese, pemmican, or some other durable energy food by our families as we passed, but we were not allowed to stop.
Thinking about that, my mind drifted back to memories of earlier in the day.
Marza had not been at the road when we passed, which had hurt me a little, but we’d already said goodbye in the morning. Her family also knew Riko would not be a part of the group going north towards the border today. I carefully explained to myself that Marza was better off working to help her family keep fed over the winter than coming to say goodbye to me for the third time in two days. It still hurt a little, no matter how logical I tried to be about it.
As we passed our farm, Ma had briefly and briskly walked along the side of the carriage and handed me a fresh honey mint flatbread wrapped in a corn husk, still hot from the oven. After I took it and carefully set it beside me on the carriage bench, she reached up and held my hand for a second, pulling it against her face quickly before letting go, patting me on the moccasin, and retreating to the side of the road to stand beside the rest of the family.
It was too loud to talk quietly as we passed, due to all the wagons, horses, and men. I certainly wasn’t going to start talking loudly to her about martial arts in front of a big group of people. I didn’t know enough to have brief questions in any case.
Ma, Pa, and Granpa were watching me very closely as I started to speak loudly. “I read your letter, Ma, all four sheets. It makes sense. Thank you.” That, I could say. It let her know I’d gotten four sheets instead of one, and that the number of sheets was notable.
Ma visibly relaxed, nodding. Pa and Granpa simply relaxed.
At that point, I felt a little jealous of the men and women on foot who were able to at least get a hug or a kiss where I’d gotten a pat on the foot. I waved a couple times more while we were in sight, but it wasn’t long until they were out of sight.
As my attention shifted to the honey mint flatbread, I asked Doctor Sten “Do you want a piece of flatbread? Honey and mint filling.” Since he was sitting right next to me on the bench, it would be rude for me not to offer him something. He didn’t have anything, and I knew it.
Doctor Sten agreed. “Only a small corner piece with a bit of filling though, please. I haven’t powered a teenage body for quite a few decades now, and had a good breakfast.”
As he finished his comment, my stomach made loud, obnoxious noises, which embarrassed me a bit. I stuttered “sorry” as I carefully tore off a corner of the flatbread and handed it to him.
Doctor Sten accepted his corner of flatbread with a grin. “Better get some of this flatbread inside you before that stomach of yours decides to jump out and find something to eat all by itself.”
We both laughed, before eating in relaxed silence.
As I walked up to my carriage, I returned my thoughts to the present.
The two older women who had been assigned to stand watch on the more valuable cargos looked at me for a few seconds before waving and looking away. I didn’t know them either. Quite a few people that I didn’t know were part of the militia under Captain Marko. Many of them had apparently arrived late the day before after I left town to go home, having been walking the prior day from New Charleston behind the officers who had ridden to town.
I waved and smiled to them. Just because I didn’t know their names yet didn’t mean I couldn’t be polite. I’d also been close enough to hear Doctor Sten explained to them that the swine were not to be taken out of the enclosure by anyone other than me, or slaughtered unless an officer ordered it directly. The doctor had then released me to do work, and pointed me at Quartermaster Brown.
I quickly collected the harness I had removed from the boars when we stopped, and a few leather straps. I verified that I’d set the wheel chocks and looked at my sounder under the carriage. They looked back at me curiously. With a little urging, they had gone in with no difficulty, and didn’t appear to be having a problem with being confined. They were making hungry noises though, and I could see that they had, in less than ten minutes, rooted up all of the grass under the carriage and eaten it.
I lifted a dozen slats along one whole side of the carriage, set them on the rack at the back of the carriage, and pulled out my whistle. Walking away slowly, I blew the whistle and called out “follow.” There was a low chorus of grunts behind me as the swine walked out from under the carriage and followed me.
The guards looked at me, curious.
“I’m taking them out with me, so they can feed themselves while I cut some ash.” I spoke, addressing myself to the watching women.
They both nodded, and then looked away from me.
I started walking back the way we’d come, towards town, speeding up to a moderate walk but not running. The swine followed behind me, grabbing bites of grass and foliage as we walked. They weren’t hungry enough to disobey me and settle in to eat, but they were too hungry for me to walk quickly and expect them to keep up.
Ash trees needed good light and moist soil. Less than two kilometers down the road, we’d crossed a bridge. I remembered that there was a stream under that bridge, and no fields next to it. There were, however, farms and fields nearby. Ash was frequently used as support poles for beans, tomatoes, and other climbing crops because coppiced ash saplings grew fast and straight. If there weren’t at least a few ash crowns cultivated along that stream, I’d be very surprised. It would take me ten minutes to cut half a dozen ash saplings if I found a couple crowns, even with a dull axe.
I didn’t walk on the road, I walked on the road’s shoulder, in the grass. The swine wouldn’t get far from me as long as I gave them occasional whistle and follow commands, so if I walked on the road, they would have less forage options. As we walked, I kept my eyes open for ash and oak trees. If I saw any oaks, and if we found ash saplings quickly, I’d take the swine by them as we headed back towards the camp and let them have a few minutes eating acorns.
As I approached the bridge, I saw a man and woman, neither of whom I knew. They were carrying a large bundle of saplings between them over their right shoulders, with axes over their left shoulders. Carrying an axe over your shoulder wasn’t safe, but I said nothing. I knew a lot of people that did it. Even Zeke did it.
The woman was very short, but lean and fit. I figured she was about thirty, with a single long braid of light brown hair highlighted with grey along a visible scar above the right side of her forehead. Her hands were calloused; her face was tanned. The clothing she wore was serviceable deer leather, but stained and showing signs of wear. I saw her eyes move, probably scanning me the same way I had just scanned her, looking at my face, clothes, and hands. She nodded in greeting as I approached the two of them.
The man behind her was fit, likely in his mid-twenties. Dark black hair tied back with a clean ribbon. His clothes were clean, new, and his face was sunburnt. He was clearly a townie, or had been away from the farm for a long time. He was also scanning me and looked a little confused, apparently noticing the swine behind me.
As we got closer, I could see that the saplings they carried were indeed ash, based on a couple leaves at the very ends. The heavier bottom ends were being carried by the man, and the narrow ends carried by the woman. The saplings were of very uniform size.
“Coppices along the bank?” I asked, fairly sure I knew the answer.
The woman responded. “Yes, I figured there would be when I remembered the stream. Both banks. Quite a few of them. We cut a couple extras.”
The man looked at me and narrowed his eyes. “There are a few others down there as well, if you need help getting yours back to camp.”
I carefully didn’t take offence. “I’m stronger than I look, and I’ve got plenty of help if I need it.” I waved one hand back towards where the swine were trailing behind me.
He nodded and the woman looked a little embarrassed as they walked past me back to camp. I smiled a little at her, just to make sure she didn’t think I’d taken offense with her due to his words. The man behind her frowned a bit as I smiled at her, but didn’t say anything. I nodded to him as well, politely. He was working, sweating, carrying the heavy end of the load, and had clearly teamed up with someone who knew what they were about, so I was going to try to get along with him unless he made a point of becoming annoying. Again.
I gave another whistle and follow command. The swine had responded to three follow commands and I hadn’t given them a treat yet, so I called them up one at a time as we walked and dropped half-treats for them. The size of the treats didn’t really matter, but it just felt stingy. Still, I knew I needed to make what I had last until I could make more treats.
A minute later, I was getting close to the bridge and saw Don, Emerald, and Rikard came up from the east side embankment. Each of them casually carrying a bundle of ash over one shoulder and an axe in the other hand. I, fortunately, was approaching the west side of the bridge and didn’t need to get close. I saw Rikard staring at me, but I only glanced at him briefly before looking away and keeping him in my peripheral vision. A couple seconds later, Emerald looked my way and walked between the two of us, so we couldn’t see each other. Nobody said a word.
I could hear more people chopping irregularly and talking in clearly irritated voices as I walked down the embankment and to the west. As I reached the streambed, I looked at the six people cutting wood. They were each cutting from a different crown, and everyone was holding their axes wrong.
I sighed as I saw them making a soup sandwich out of some local farmer’s ash coppice crowns. Townies. I know it. Maybe even from the city.
“Everyone stop for a second, please.” They all stopped and looked at me as my swine piled into the stream and drank greedily before starting to roll and wallow to cool off. I wasn’t sure if they were looking at me or the swine. “The swine are mine, domestic. You may have seen them pulling my carriage today, or trailing behind it.”
I walked over to the closest coppice crown and gestured for the rest of them to come closer. “Before you cut any more I need to talk to you for a second.”
“We need to cut these. Sheela said these were ash trees. The quartermaster wants ash saplings for spears.” One of the men standing farther away said, leaning on his axe handle. The head of his axe was in the water. The leather bindings were in the water.
As I stared at the man’s submerged axe head, I recited to myself. There is a difference between ignorance and idiocy. I might be able to fix ignorance.
I pointed at the man with the axe head in the stream. “Your axe is now unsafe to use. You got the straps wet, the leather will loosen, and the head might work loose and fall out and hurt someone. You will need to use a different axe. Has anyone else gotten their axe head wet in the water?”
Two other people were carefully testing the heads of their axes and looking nervous.
I shook my head a little. “That’s really important, but not why I originally wanted your attention. These trees are cultivated.” I pointed at the massive crown next to me with at least fifty stumps. “The locals have been harvesting them for a very long time. If we cut a few from every crown of stumps, they will have to go to every crown to harvest, and get less from each crown. Let’s just cut what we need from a single crown.”
The man who’s axe I had noticed earlier spoke, but didn’t seem irritated at me for pointing out his mistake before. “We’ll be a bit close together for that though, I don’t want to hit someone. I’ve never used an axe before.”
Several of the others made noises of agreement. I sighed inside, but smiled at him and laughed a little. “Let’s fix that then, OK? Time for axe lessons.”
I then gave axe-handling lessons for several minutes, individually helping everyone learn the basics of using an axe. To my great satisfaction, ignorance turned out to be the only problem. Nobody was going to be winning any wood chopping contests soon, but they probably wouldn’t hurt themselves or anyone else with an axe.
During their lessons, I checked everyone’s axe heads, and four of the six were loosening due to getting wet. They would need to be dried and oiled before they could be used safely. My axe was used by everyone with an unsafe axe. It still didn’t take much time to get them all sorted out and give them seven saplings each to carry.
“Why the extra one.” Anu asked, as I had her cut her extra sapling from the crown. “Not that I mind, but it wasn’t what we were told to do.” She was a little older than me, I’d guess, with long platinum blonde hair tied behind her head with a loose overhand knot. She was almost as tall as Marza, and very broad across the shoulders. She was easily the strongest person present, and could cut a two-inch sapling with two blows after I taught her how to do a good full-extension swing. She was also carrying more extra weight than anyone I’d ever seen. I couldn’t see any of her muscles in her neck or arms, and she was round everywhere. She might have weighed almost as much as Edward, and might have given him a hard time arm wrestling. I would never have believed she could be so strong if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
“Not everyone came this way.” I explained. “They might not all be able to find ash trees, which need good light and moist soil. Even if they find ash trees, they might not find six of the right size. These are cultivated. Ash trees don’t normally grow bunched up like this, all the same size. It doesn’t take long to cut one more, and they aren’t that heavy. I plan on bringing back about twenty extra.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone crouching and getting ready to hand-feed Speedy something. It was Kelvin, the man who I had noticed with the axe head in the water earlier. “Kelvin, don’t hand it to her. Drop it in front of her.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t think you would mind.” He replied as he dropped what I saw was a crayfish. Before I could say a word, Speedy snapped it up and sat back on her haunches, happily crunching away. I was a little concerned about her eating the crayfish because of it’s shell. I’d never fed swine any sort of shellfish before.
As I watched, Speedy continued chewing, her head turning a little from side to side with an odd expression as she carefully dealt with the new food. When she didn’t seem to be in any distress after swallowing once, I addressed Kelvin, who had been looking back and forth between Speedy and me with a worried look on his face. “Sorry, I’ve never fed her shellfish before. I’d appreciate it if you don’t feed any of the swine any more of them. I don’t mind if you feed her anything that either you or a dog or a cow could eat, but if your fingers get into her mouth, you might not get them back.” I sighed. “If you want to see an angry swine, try to take food out of their mouths. That’s why I didn’t try to get the crayfish back from her. She’ll enjoy it if you scratch her behind the ears though.”
Kelvin looked back at me, and then down at Speedy. A moment later, he slowly leaned forward and scratched Speedy behind her ears. “Sorry. Will she be OK?”
Speedy stood back up on all fours and leaned into the shins of the nice human scratching her, still chewing whatever was left of the crayfish with an occasional crackle.
“Probably.” I said, still a little concerned. “She’s still chewing, which is good. She’s eaten acorns and hickory nuts from last year, and they have sharp edges when chewed, so she will probably be OK. I’d still rather avoid shellfish for the swine though.”
I was concerned. Chitin might not process through the digestive tract as easily as the shells of hickory nuts. I couldn’t ask Zeke or Granpa, which made me a little worried. At the same time, I couldn’t remember ever hearing about any of the swine at the marina having issues with chitin, and we sold the marina several swine per year. I was pretty sure the swine we sold them had plenty of opportunities to eat dead crabs along the beach during their walks, even if the crabbers and lobstermen didn’t feed them crustacean offal directly. Speedy was the same size, roughly, as the other swine culls we typically sold to the marina. I relaxed, fairly confident she would be OK, but kept her in my peripheral vision anyway.
After the first time Rikard had threatened to poison my swine, I had tried to teach them to only eat from their trough unless they got a forage command. That was my first magnificent failure with swine, and Zeke still teased me about it from time to time when it came up.
If you put food in front of a swine, the swine would eat it, or protect it. It was all I could do to get my swine to ignore dropped food under a whoah command. As soon as the whoah command was ended, they would snap up the food though. If you tried to pick up food from under their noses while they were under a whoah command, they would break the whoah command enough to plant their nose on the food and stare at you, motionless again, until you took your hand away from their food. Even Zeke’s much better trained swine would do the same thing. It was just one of those things that swine would not put up with.
Anu picked up her seven poles, and then looked at me with that look. “I don’t mean to be offensive, Allen, but I’d have a hard time carrying twenty-six of them. Do you want help, or did you bring your carriage?”
I bit back my irritation at the implied belief that I was weak. Compared to Anu, I was weak, and she hadn’t seen me work. “I’ve got help.” I pointed towards Hoss and Bigboy, who were rooting along the streambed. “But if you want to help me cut them, I’d take that help. I’ll chop on this side of the crown, you chop on that side.”
Anu set her bundle down as Kelvin picked his up with a little stagger. He rebalanced his load and started walking more easily up the embankment, walking with the axe held at the base of the blade, like I’d taught him. “I’ll see you at the camp. I’d just get in the way if I tried to help cut next to you two.”
I nodded. He was right.
It only took a few minutes for us to cut twenty-six saplings, and since there were only six left after all the cutting we’d done on the crown, I asked Anu to cut the rest as well to finish the crown. Someone would curse that the whole crown had been cut, but at least all the growth would be at the same stage, only a couple saplings were missing from the other crowns.
As Anu was cutting the last of the saplings, I pulled two harnesses out of my shoulder pouch. Hoss and Bigboy, who had both been rooting around on dry ground next to the streambed, both immediately walked into the stream and wallowed in the water. They both were obviously watching me for my reaction.
“Quit that, you two.” I said with a little smile I couldn’t repress. A second later, I gave them a command that they knew and would follow. “Hoss. Bigboy. Come.”
I wasn’t sure if the boars knew that getting wet would damage their harness, but after years of experience, they certainly knew I wouldn’t put harness on them when they were wet. They reluctantly got out of the stream and walked up to me, expectantly, knowing they would get a treat for obeying, even if they were a bit slack about it.
I grinned as I dropped a half treat in front of each of them at the same time, several feet from one another. Letting one of them get both treats would put the other one in a foul mood and might start a squabble. I led the two wet boars over to a patch of grass and had them roll in it, which they enjoyed. After they were dry from rolling in the grass, I put their harness on them and gave them each another half treat.
Anu had finished cutting the ash saplings and stacked them by the time I had the boars in harness. She watched as I put both boars next to each other, separated by about a half meter. I called out “whoah” even though I knew that the other swine nearby would also stop doing whatever they were doing. The boars stopped fidgeting and stood still. I gave them each a scratch behind the ears. “Good.”
I cut one of the saplings in half and discarded the thinner end. At each end of the thicker half, I cut notches before fitting the sapling into loops in the chest harness of each boar and tied it in place with leather straps around the notches to make a chest pole. The chest pole wasn’t going to bear any weight, it was just to help the boars walk together at a constant distance. After the chest pole was in place, I picked up four more of the saplings and made notches about a foot from their thick ends. I fed the poles into the travois straps on each side of each boar’s harness, the thick ends facing forwards, and the thin ends trailing behind the boars. Finally, with a few more head scratches and encouraging noises, I finished tying the four saplings in place at the notches so they would not fall out of the harness.
Now I had two boars in harness together, with a four-pole travois. I used a couple more long straps of leather out of my pouch to tie the bundle of saplings onto the travois poles, sideways behind the boars. To balance the load, we turned seventeen of them with the thick end behind Hoss, and seventeen with the thick end behind Bigboy.
“Oh, we put mine on there too.” Anu said, all of a sudden. “I got caught up in watching you load the travois, and didn’t notice. Do you need me to carry some of them, that’s not a light load.”
I smiled a bit. She had been good to work with, and the weight of seven extra poles was no problem. “They’re fine. That’s about a hundred kilos, between two boars that each mass a little over two hundred kilos each. A quarter of their mass is no problem on a road drag.”
“They mass more than I do by that much? But they look so small.” Anu was looking back and forth between the two boars.
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud a little. “Short, not small. Look at how long and thick their torsos are. They aren’t built like a human at all. They are also a lot stronger than us in a straight pull per kilo mass too, because they have better leverage with shorter limbs.”
After testing the straps holding the poles in place, I tied two leashes to the tops of the harnesses. That would allow me to give them harness commands.
I shook the reins and called out “walk.” The boars started moving slowly as I moved behind them with the reins, shaking the reins a couple times as I called out the occasional “right” and “left” as we climbed the embankment.
Anu walked beside me and laughed. “They are just like little horses.”
“In a way, sure. They are a little smarter than horses, but nowhere near as strong. Even a very small horse is twice their mass. Draft horses can mass more than four times a full grown forest swine boar. Swine don’t think about work like horses either. Horses seem to actually enjoy working if they are healthy and wearing proper harness. Our drafts at the farm get frisky when they get into harness. Swine work for food. They don’t like to work, but they will, since they know I’ll be feeding them a treat after they do some work for me.”
“Now they sound more like humans than horses.” She laughed.
“They can act very human sometimes, yes. Sometimes they seem human enough that it’s tempting to identify with them too much. Then they act like swine again and you realize how silly you were to think they were anything but clever animals. Elefants are much smarter than my swine. If I’d been born in New Singapore, I’d like to think I would have been a mahout. Being partnered with an animal that intelligent for most of both of our lives. A huge responsibility with a huge reward.” I reached into my pouch and brought out the whistle and blew it, calling out “follow.”
The boars ignored the command since they were in harness. The rest of my swine started following me alongside the road, wandering to the underbrush at the edge of the forest. I hadn’t seen any oaks on the way here, and the sun was starting to set. We needed to get back to camp, and had about two kilometers to walk. We’d get back before full dark.
I heard one of the elefants trumpeting. The signal we’d been told to listen for if we got lost. I wondered how many city and town people had been lost in the woods. I hoped nobody had been hurt in the woods.
“So what do you do for a living, Anu?” I asked, trying to make polite conversation.
“Well, ah, nothing really. I’m a student at New Charleston University.” She chuckled. “I’m almost finished with my education degree though. I’d like to teach Primary. Moving from state to state sounds like fun.
“Oh.” I couldn’t help myself, and chuckled.
“What’s funny?” Anu sounded a little suspicious.
“Sorry, I was just imagining the reactions of your students when they saw what you could do in strength exercises. You’d probably have more respect from the troublesome students than most teachers get.”
“You should see me when it’s not the off-season.” She smiled.
“Off-season?” I knew I sounded confused. “How could a season change your appearance?”
Anu started chuckling and laughing. I knew she was laughing at me, but it didn’t sound like cruel laughter. She snorted loudly and got control of herself. “Sorry, Allen, you caught me off guard. I’m a bodybuilder. There’s a competition season and an off-season. During the competition season, I lose most of my body fat. In the off-season, I change my diet and let my body develop fat. It’s not healthy to stay extremely lean all the time. Classes this semester required a lot more of my attention than I expected, so I’ve put on even more weight than normal because I haven’t been able to spend anywhere near enough time in the gym. I suspect I’ll be losing a lot of weight soon though. I doubt the militia will feed me what I need to keep my weight up.”
That didn’t make sense. “If the militia doesn’t feed you enough, a lot of the farmers from around here will suffer too. You aren’t any bigger than a lot of the local men.” I carefully didn’t say that she was carrying a lot of extra weight, and could afford to lose some of it. It seemed as if that extra weight was intentional, to some degree, for reasons I wasn’t grasping. There was also the simple fact that I wasn’t foolish enough to disparage any woman’s weight. Anu was a stranger, around twice my mass, had demonstrated surprising strength, and was carrying an axe that I’d just taught her how to swing. All of those things put together was enough to keep my mouth shut about extra weight.
She tilted her head, obviously searching her memory. “Well, that’s good to know. I hadn’t really been paying attention to the other men. I’m married, so I try not to let the mind wander.” She was silent and I didn’t say anything. I’d left Marza behind, and it hurt even though we weren’t married yet.
After a couple dozen steps, she spoke again. “Sorry about laughing earlier, Allen. I suspect you got a good chuckle over our attempts to use axes too. Different worlds.”
I hadn’t laughed. The axe handling situation had been deadly serious. Looked at after the fact though, I could see some humor in it. “Different worlds, indeed.” I said with a little smile. I still didn’t really understand what bodybuilding was, but I supposed it was a strength sport of some type, like bale-tossing or weighted sled pulling contests for people. I suspected she now understood axes better than I grasped the concept of the sport of bodybuilding.
So, do I prove my ignorance now, or wait till later, when it’s somehow important? I thought to myself with a smile. “So, what do you actually do to compete in bodybuilding? What’s the point? I’m still not entirely certain I get it.”
Anu looked at me for a moment, and muttered something under her breath that I couldn’t understand before she started speaking. “Bodybuilding is a sport that tests your dedication, willpower, and body. The purpose is to create an ideal heavily-muscled physique with clean lines, almost like sculpting your own body. Others with a similar mindset, those who have retired from active competition, judge our bodies.”
My thoughts whirled around as I reoriented my mindset around the concept she had just described. “So, it’s a sport where the natural body is judged directly and the will to train is judged by apparent training effort? What about people who have bodies that literally can’t measure up to the standards of the natural body ideal that bodybuilding stands for.” I took a breath. “Like me, for instance. I suspect that my inability to gain any weight and my excessively lean body would not get me many points in a bodybuilding contest, no matter how hard I tried.”
She started chuckling at that, and I wasn’t able to guess why. “It’s a sport for large, heavy people, generally. People without especially quick reflexes. Sometimes people with minor handicaps like vision or hearing problems.” She paused. “I’ve always been big. Especially for a woman. Too big to do endurance sports, and not coordinated or fast-thinking enough to do sports like tennis or obstacle course running. But I’ve got plenty of willpower, and I enjoy making my body look like a sculpture.”
The thought of people building their bodies up for a lean but heavily-muscled appearance with no specific goal just felt weird. Bodybuilding sounded less like a sport than a draft horse inspection. I shook my head a little, and reminded myself I was looking at it from a different perspective. To be fair, there were both ability and appearance contests for draft horses during harvest festival. Still, everyone knew you needed to warm up before you started to work hard, and exercise a bit if you didn’t have work to do that would keep you in shape. I could imagine Edward or Pa’s reaction to the idea of bodybuilding. Edward could probably walk into one of their competitions and at least get respect, any time of year, and if Pa hadn’t had his ribs so badly damaged when he was young, he probably could as well. I shook my head. “You must start a ketogenic diet to lose weight when preparing for competition then?” I guessed.
She nodded. “Yes. Ketogenic diet to burn fat. When I do workouts to build muscle, I drink a sugar tea for energy. When the energy is gone, my workout is done, and the carbs are out of my system. Staying on a ketogenic diet for too long isn’t a good idea unless you’re epileptic or suffering from some types of dementia though. Too hard to balance it safely without real medical technology. Not without far more fisc than I have access to.”
“I’ve hit that carb wall a few times myself.” I muttered, remembering a few instances where I’d been working hard and missed meals. “Not fun.”
“I imagine it’s a lot harder on you than it is on me. Even when I’m in top form, I’ve got plenty of muscle and a little fat for my body to cannibalize for energy.” She looked at me with a critical eye. “Your body really doesn’t have anywhere to turn for extra energy. I’m very surprised you’re as strong as you are.”
I shrugged. The conversation was going places that I didn’t like talking about, but it was me that had continued it. “Carb depletion for me is a real concern. Aside from lean muscle and organs, I’ve got nothing but what’s in my blood, digestive tract and liver. The doctors we’ve talked to in town hope that as I age, my metabolism will slow to some extent and allow me to put on a few kilos. It’s been something of an obsession for my mother over the years to give me food whenever I leave the farm. ” I paused a second. “It’d be nice to have a couple kilos of extra mass. As it is, I might do myself irreparable harm if I went without food for more than a few days, while most people can survive for three or more weeks without food, if they have to.”
Something in the forest caught my eye. Walking back towards the camp gave me different sightlines into the forest than I’d had on the way out. I saw a low, green hump through the trees. The shape and apparent size told me it was probably an oak. They tended to take up more horizontal space than anything else in the forest. It might be a few pecan or walnut trees close to one another as well, but the swine might find edible mast under those type trees as well.
I looked down the road towards the camp. I could see smoke from several fires, and I caught the scent of baking bread. If I could barely smell the bread, the swine had smelled it long ago, which explained why they had been moving ahead of me rather than behind me as they typically preferred to do under a follow command. I really wanted to get them a few minutes with good forest mast before taking them back to camp. They would be irritable if they were hungry with freshly-cooked food smells in the air.
The light levels told me the sun was starting to be obscured by the horizon. The swine wouldn’t have much time to eat, but I’d have time to fill my pouch with a few liters of acorns if they had started to drop and hadn’t been eaten by local wildlife.
Guiltily, but also with a little sense of relief, I realized that I could use the oak as a way to break off the discussion that had gotten more personal than I’d like. It wasn’t Anu’s fault; I had made some poor choices during the conversation. “There’s an oak or maybe another type of nut tree over there. I’d like to give the swine a few minutes to get some acorns or whatever’s there, and I can fill my pouch with acorns to take back. If you fill yours too, I’d appreciate it.”
She looked towards camp, and then towards where she couldn’t see the sun, and frowned. “OK, but we don’t have much time before dark.”
“If there’s a good carpet of acorns, the swine will get enough to satisfy them fairly quickly. They were eating the whole time we were cutting wood, but it was mostly roots, grass, and leaves. Filling, but they’ll go for acorns fast if there are any there.” I looked at the undergrowth along the side of the road. It was pretty thick; many thick, gnarled, stunted trees and bushes growing on thousands of years of broken road and bridge stones along the side of the road. If anyone started a farm here, or if nearby farmers started a large stone fence or building foundation, the broken stones would be collected as building materials. The roadworkers would just keep piling them up until someone came to get them. That’s what our swine pens on the farm had been build from, five generations ago. I didn’t want the boars to try to get over that pile of broken stone and bushes with the travois poles still attached. They could hurt themselves.
I flipped the reins. “Slow.” The boars started walking slower. Another flip of the reins. “Stand.” The boars stopped. I walked around the two boars and dropped two half treats, one for each, so they had to turn away from each other just a little to suck them up off the ground. They both looked at each other after quickly snapping up their treats, but each saw that the other had finished what they were eating, so nothing came of it.
“Whoah.” I said, and all the swine around me were motionless. I quickly untied the travois poles, and the chest pole from the boars’ harnesses. Then I disconnected the reins from the tops of the harnesses.
I looked along the side of the road. We were on the east side now, as opposed to the west side when I’d walked to the bridge. I noticed three of the larger females were bunched together, staring at me from next to the thick brush along the road. Clearly wanting me to end the ‘whoah’ command so they could get back to whatever it was they had found. I scanned around them, and spotted what they were after.
I pointed at the few blackberries left on the bushes. “Looks like someone before us got to those before we did. There aren’t enough of them left to fill them up, but they’ll eat what’s there.” I pulled out my whistle, blew a quick note, and said “blackberries” while pointing towards the three sows next to the blackberry bushes they had found.
As the more distant swine turned and trotted towards the blackberry bushes that had been mostly cleared out by someone already, I waved for Anu to follow me. “There’s a good place up here to get over the road debris.” I said, pointing at a large broken bridge slab that must have been quite a chore for even an elefant to lift. The undamaged slab would have been massive, and probably would have needed a water bucket crane to install.
Anu was watching the swine and chuckled as they rushed towards the blackberry bushes, grunting happily. “They’re adorable!”
Smiling a bit, I nodded. “They know the words for certain foods we find in the woods a lot. Saying ‘blackberries’ and pointing at the bushes gave them direction and motivation from me. They had all certainly smelled the berries, but they were also smelling the foods from camp, and we were walking that way, so only the bigger sows who are still fairly hungry were looking for berries. The boars would have been in the bushes already too, if they hadn’t been in harness. The littler ones mostly filled up at the creek and want camp food instead. They don’t know they can’t have it.”
Anu looked at me and I shrugged. “They aren’t desperately hungry. I just want them full, especially the first night we camp.”
I gripped my axe in my left hand, by the haft, just below the head. Then I carefully turned the blade away from my body as I hopped up onto the large slab leaning against the low mound of smaller flat, broken stones choked with bushes.
A loud, rapid rattling noise started as my feet landed, and a spike of pure adrenaline hit me. I was unable to stop my forward motion, my weight continued shifting and my right hand came to rest towards the top of the slab, my left hand still held carefully extended to the side, the blade of the axe still pointed away from me. Over the top of the slab, I could see a flat, dark stone.
Frozen in shock, I screamed ‘IDIOT‘ at myself as I watched an arm-thick scaled body reshape itself from a loose set of curves on the dark stone into a tight set of s-curves. A pair of inhuman eyes raised themselves on a scaled column, and vertical striped pupils devoid of any warmth locked onto me. A forked tongue slashed the air in my direction, seemingly only a few centimeters away, even though I knew it was at least two decimeters away.
Anu was right behind me, and clearly didn’t recognize the noise she was hearing. “What is that, Allen?”
Fighting to stay immobile through the rush of adrenaline, I mumbled to Anu, moving my mouth as little as possible as I watched the rattlesnake for signs that it was going to strike. “Snake. Get back.”
If you like the story, please vote for it at TopWebFiction!
Remember that you can vote for many stories if you like!